#002: The Black Journey Out West

How two completely different groups of black Oklahomans came to be treated as one

Welcome to the second edition of Run It Back, my biweekly newsletter about neglected black history. For the foreseeable future the newsletter will be focused on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which I’m currently writing a book about for Random House.

For Eliza Whitmire, the journey to Oklahoma was a bitter memory. She was born a slave in the Cherokee Nation, on a large plantation in the Georgia mountains. When the United States militias forced the Cherokee people from their homeland in 1838--an atrocity now commonly known as the Trail of Tears--Whitmire and many other tribal slaves were part of the grueling march. They served as hunters, nurses, and cooks throughout the brutal winter trip across the southeast. They tended livestock during the day and served as security patrol at night. They cleared the trail itself, carving through the southern wilderness into the unknown. Whitmire survived the trip, but many enslaved people were among the thousands that died on a trek out West they never asked for. 

For De'Leslaine Davis, the journey to Oklahoma was an opportunity. The South Carolina native was working menial jobs in Kansas when a friend convinced him to venture south to Indian Territory. On April 22, 1889, the U.S. government was opening nearly two million acres of land to public settlement. First come, with a wooden stake and a Winchester rifle, first served. Davis and his partner were there at high noon, clutching the reins of their horses behind an invisible line that separated thousands of would-be homesteaders from the “Unassigned Lands” (the lands had been “assigned” to Native Americans as part of their removal to Oklahoma, then rescinded after the Civil War). The pair were likely the only black faces in sight. When a gunshot cracked the air, though, the entire group became an avalanche of galloping hooves, trundling wagons, and desperate sprinting feet. Davis secured a hundred or so acres by the Canadian River, just west of modern Oklahoma City. In the coming years thousands of other African Americans would participate in later land runs, joining Davis as “settlers” in a region that was already filled with both indigenous and black residents. 

Whitmire and Davis went west for different reasons--one under duress, the other of his own free will. For many years, they would have had reason to be suspicious of each other. They might not have even considered themselves to be of the same race. But by the time white historians had finally decided to catalog the memories of these western pioneers in the 1930s, they were viewed as one people: Negro. Colored. Black. 


In November I packed up my faded red Kia Forte and made my own trip from the deep South to Oklahoma, where I’m living in a house near Tulsa’s Greenwood district as I do reporting and research for my book. For my 11-hour drive through the Mississippi Delta and the Arkansas Ozarks, I put together a Spotify playlist filled with black artists singing country music. "Country" being pretty relative. Charley Pride is a staple of the traditional country genre, and his ebullient “Oklahoma Morning” brightened that day and many others. But so did Tina Turner, who released a sultry, dusky gem of an album called Tina Turner Turns the Country On! in 1974. The twangiest cuts from Southern hip-hop groups like UGK and OutKast are also country in my eyes (and Pimp C’s). I liked that these songs, in all kinds of different ways, challenged a whitewashed mythology of the West. 

Black Oklahomans have lived just outside the frame of western myths for a long time, erased from the stories America tells about the region even as they helped shape it. The first to move out west were the thousands of slaves who accompanied members of the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Tribes during the forced Native American removal to Oklahoma in the 1820’s and ‘30s. After the Civil War (when the Five Tribes sided with the Confederacy, though many within their ranks dissented), the slaves were freed and granted tribal citizenship. In the Creek and Seminole tribes, they farmed alongside Native Americans on communally owned land, served as Supreme Court justices in national governments, and acted as translators for tribal leaders in negotiations with U.S. officials. “'I will recognize...all people as equals whether white, red, or black,” Isparhecher, a Native American Creek political leader, said in 1891 (it’s important to point out that blacks in the Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw tribes had significantly fewer rights). 

A cabin owned by black Creek citizens in Okmulgee, Indian Territory, 1898-1901. Photo Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society

As black tribal members were gaining more autonomy, though, federal schemes to colonize Indian Territory transformed their way of life. The land run of 1889 introduced the words boomer and sooner into the American lexicon, but it also boosted the financial incentive to seize more Native American lands and hand them to new settlers. By the time the runs were over in 1895, more than 13 million acres of land in Indian Territory had come into settler ownership. But it wasn’t enough. The Five Tribes were compelled to transfer the lands of eastern Oklahoma, which were communally owned, to an individual ownership system that aligned with American capitalist ideals (I’ll get into this more next newsletter). In the myths, these changes are what allowed plucky settlers to build themselves up from nothing on the free and open plains out West. In reality, the policies were spearheaded by rich town developers, shady real estate grafters, and railroad companies.

 African Americans from the South ultimately benefited from this economic upheaval (though not to nearly the same extent as whites). Around the turn of the century, newly arrived black settlers were marketing Oklahoma to other well-off blacks as an unblemished utopia where the land and the people were purer than in the southern states. In Langston, the all-black town co-founded by the ambitious black politician Edwin P. McCabe, the local paper promised both “a land of diversified crops” and a place where “the colored man has the same protection as his white brother.” Immigration agents delivered this message across the South, and by 1900 there were 55,000 black people in Oklahoma, the majority of them born outside the state. 

With one group of blacks rapidly losing land and another group eagerly trying to gain it, a cultural clash was inevitable. The new black migrants called the tribal inhabitants “natives.” The Five Tribes members called the interlopers “State Negroes” (or a Creek word for “white man’s Negro”). In Boley, an all-black town populated by migrants, tribal members would gallop through the streets shooting out lights and building windows at night. In the pages of the black press, businessmen admonished Five Tribes members for betraying the race by selling their land allotments to white men instead of black entrepreneurs. 

These two groups did not necessarily see themselves as part of a single race. But others certainly did. As the Five Tribes were strong-armed into a capitalist free-for-all with the changes to land ownership,  tribal leaders came to see their black members as a threat to their bottom line. Earlier notions of egalitarianism were replaced with a fixation on blood quantum as a marker of tribal legitimacy (even today, Cherokee and Creek descendants of slaves are fighting for their tribal citizenship to be acknowledged in the courts). “They have no right to this land,” Chitto Harjo, the famed Creek resistance leader who fought against individual land allotments, said at a U.S. Senate hearing in Tulsa in 1906. “It never was given to them. It was given to me and my people and we paid for it with our land back in Alabama." 

Meanwhile, as Jim Crow crept westward across the prairies of Indian Territory, new laws excluded blacks from white schools and banned interracial relationships between blacks and whites. By the time of statehood in 1907, separate-but-equal laws were enshrined by the legislature via a bill calling for black and white train cars. The constitution also specified that “colored” people would only include individuals “of African descent.” Native Americans (excluding black tribal members) would be part of the “white race.” 

Though black people came to Oklahoma for different and often conflicting reasons, they all ultimately found themselves shuttled into the bottom of the same racial caste system. This took decades to accomplish, but it has effectively rendered many of their early actions in Oklahoma invisible to the modern eye. In the 1800’s, black Oklahomans were judges, soldiers, town promoters, tribal members, farmers, and the canonical scrappy settler with a horse and a dream. They embodied the myth of the West, but they also transcended it.  


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Sources:

Chang, David. The Color of the Land

Davis, De’Leslaine. Interviewed by Anna R. Berry in El Reno Oklahoma on Oct. 11, 1937. Indian Pioneer History

Hamilton, Kenneth. Black Towns and Profit

Langston City Herald

Littlefield, David. Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War

Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier

Whitmire, Eliza. Interviewed by James Carseloway in Estella, Oklahoma in Feb. 1938. Oklahoma Historical Society, Indian Pioneer History, Vol. 97.

Wickett, Murray. Contested Territory: Whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865–1907